How to Alleviate Back Pain With an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

June 24, 2022
BY Joshua Abrams, M.D.
Joshua Abrams is a fellowship-trained and board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon, specializing in minimally invasive surgery, artificial disc replacement, and cervical and lumbar spine surgery. He is a thought leader in minimally invasive spine techniques, spinal navigation, and non-fusion technologies.

Our bodies use the nutrients in the food we eat for maintenance and repair, so it’s essential we give them the best materials to work with. If you’re looking for changes you can make at home, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet for your back pain is a great first step.

Some micronutrients help promote a healthy immune system, lowering your inflammatory response. A low-inflammation diet emphasizes foods rich in those vitamins and minerals while reducing your intake of foods that promote inflammation.

You can use this guide to learn more about how your diet affects your back pain and what foods are crucial for fighting inflammation.

How Can Your Diet Affect Back Pain?

Your diet plays a role in your immune system’s strength and promoting or discouraging inflammation.

In the U.S., 39% of adults reported experiencing either mechanical or non-specific back pain. Mechanical back pain is traceable to the spine, including the discs and surrounding tissues. Non-specific back pain — pain that neither you nor your provider can conclusively find the cause of — is often linked to chronic inflammation. 

What Causes Inflammation?

When you have an injury or infection, your immune system sends white blood cells to the site. The blood flow to the area increases in response, causing the warmth and redness we recognize as inflammation. This process should stop once the infection or injury heals. Sometimes, however, the immune system never receives the signal to shut off, leading to chronic inflammation. 

While you can request blood tests to check for inflammation, they can’t tell you if it’s acute or chronic. The best way to watch for chronic inflammation is to ensure your doctor looks for signs of inflammation-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.

Diet and Back Pain

Some foods can impact your inflammatory response and immune system, increasing or reducing your pain. It’s best to avoid foods that promote the release of inflammatory markers in favor of those that help fight oxidative stress. 

Before you try a new diet, be sure you’re familiar with the potential risks and benefits:

  • Ketogenic diet

    Reducing carbohydrates is an essential part of an anti-inflammatory diet. However, think twice before choosing the keto diet for back pain. This diet is often high in saturated fats, which have been linked to increased inflammation.

  • DASH diet

    The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet limits items that can trigger inflammation, such as sugar and processed foods.

  • Mediterranean diet

    With a wide variety of whole, unprocessed foods, the Mediterranean diet is a healthy option most people find easy to stick to. Its emphasis on fish also provides a source of omega-3 fatty acids that can help reduce inflammation.

Whether you decide to follow an existing plan or simply modify your shopping list, the best diet for chronic back pain is one that provides the vitamins and minerals you need to keep your immune system healthy.

Building a Diet for Back Pain

Build a diet to reduce back pain by making sure you get the vitamins and minerals that promote a healthy spine and immune system.

  • Calcium

    Calcium is widely recognized for promoting healthy bones and maintaining bone mass. Paired with Vitamin D, calcium can help keep your bones strong and prevent osteoporosis.

  • Supplement your diet with calcium-rich foods such as:

    • Milk
    • Cheese
    • Yogurt
    • Bok choy
    • Kale
    • Broccoli
    • Legumes
    • Almonds
    • Tofu
    • Oranges
  • Vitamin D

    Vitamin D is calcium’s partner in maintaining bone health. Adequate Vitamin D levels let your body absorb calcium from your diet instead of drawing it from your bones.

    Since Vitamin D is only naturally present in a few foods, many people get it through spending time in the sun or taking a nutritional supplement.

  • You can also add Vitamin D to your diet with:

    • Fatty fish
    • Egg yolks
    • Liver
  • Magnesium

    Magnesium plays several roles in body chemistry, one of the most important of which is helping activate Vitamin D. This mineral is a necessary ingredient for regulating the calcium needed to maintain healthy bones. Along with building bone density, magnesium helps relax contracting muscles. Sufficient magnesium is essential for preventing cramps in the muscles supporting the spine.

    However, the standard U.S. diet only provides about 50% of the recommended daily amount of magnesium.

  • Improve your intake by ensuring your diet includes:

    • Avocados
    • Fish
    • Bananas
    • Whole grains
    • Brown rice
    • Broccoli
    • Mushrooms
    • Leafy green vegetables
  • Vitamin K

    Like Vitamin D, Vitamin K helps the body deal with calcium, guiding its distribution into bones and soft tissues. It also helps reduce inflammatory markers, making it an important part of a low-inflammation diet for back pain.

    Vitamin K occurs naturally in two forms. Vitamin K1 is found in plants and Vitamin K2 in animal products, dairy and fermented foods.

  • Add Vitamin K to your diet with:

    • Cabbage
    • Kale
    • Broccoli
    • Spinach
    • Swiss chard
    • Natto
    • Eel
    • Cheese
    • Beef liver
  • Vitamin C

    You probably already know Vitamin C is good for your immune system. It encourages antibody formation and white blood cell production. It’s also a necessary ingredient for forming collagen and helps heals injuries to tendons, muscles, ligaments and discs.
  • Good sources of Vitamin C include:

    • Strawberries
    • Citrus fruits
    • Kiwis
    • Tomatoes
    • Bell peppers
    • Spinach
    • Sweet potatoes
    • Broccoli
  • Collagen

    Collagen builds cartilage, bones, ligaments, and tendons and helps keep them elastic. It also provides a place for calcium to attach, helping maintain bone strength.

    You can add food to your diet that provides collagen directly or that contains the materials your body needs to produce it.

  • Foods that contain or help produce collagen:

    • Chicken
    • Egg whites
    • Berries
    • Citrus fruits
    • Garlic
    • Beans
    • Leafy greens
    • Tomatoes
    • Cashews 
  • Proteins

    Proteins are essential building blocks for bone, soft tissue, and cartilage. They also protect and power the digestive system and provide the amino acids the immune system needs to create antibodies.

    When building an anti-inflammatory diet, choose plant-based proteins or fish high in omega-3 fatty acids.

  • Plant-based proteins & fish high in omega-3 fatty acids

    • Tofu
    • Edamame
    • Lentils
    • Chickpeas
    • Black beans
    • Salmon
    • Halibut
    • Mackerel
  • B Vitamins

    Loading up on B vitamins helps improve bone health and fight inflammation. Vitamin B12 is a necessary component in building bones and forming red blood cells in bone marrow, while Vitamin B6 helps reduce inflammation

  • Increase your Vitamin B intake by adding these foods to your diet:

    • Leafy greens
    • Legumes
    • Nutritional yeast
    • Sunflower seeds
    • Trout
    • Salmon
    • Beef
    • Milk
    • Eggs
  • Iron

    Iron helps produce collagen and activate Vitamin D. It also helps your body produce hemoglobin, the part of red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body, and is critical for a robust immune system.

  • You can find iron in:

    • Beans
    • Lentils
    • Red meat
    • Chicken
    • Turkey
    • Nuts
    • Broccoli
    • Kale

Foods to Avoid

Just as some foods can help reduce inflammation, others can increase it. As you build an anti-inflammatory diet for your back pain, reduce or avoid these foods and ingredients:

  • Refined carbs
  • Fried foods
  • Processed foods and meats
  • Sugar
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Sugar-sweetened drinks
  • Margarine
  • Vegetable shortening
  • Alcohol


Need Help Handling Back Pain? Schedule an Appointment Today

Good spine health starts at home, and developing a delicious anti-inflammatory diet can help you keep your back pain in check. If you need a helping hand, the specialists at Desert Institute for Spine Care are here for you.

At DISC, we’re the leaders in minimally invasive spine care and know that everyone’s back pain is different. We’ll use a personalized approach to diagnose your pain and treat it, creating a tailored treatment plan that offers long-term relief. 

Contact us to schedule a consultation with a spine specialist at one of our five Arizona locations, and develop a plan for your spine health today.

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